The Theory of Chaos

Friday, December 15, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - The Prestige

Full review behind the jump

The Prestige

: Christopher Nolan
: Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, based on the novel by Christopher Priest
: Emma Thomas, Aaron Ryder, Christopher Nolan
: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Samantha Mahurin, David Bowie, Andy Serkis

It’s easy to understand why so many magicians use playing cards. A card played is a statement – a distraction, a dare, a lie, a promise, the winner is the one who can spin those statements into the best story.
The Prestige, an exceptionally clever film from the talented Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins), is an epic story about a duel between two magicians exhausting their deck – each card played leaving them more exposed, while raising the stakes to the very limits. It dramatizes a haunting question: is it a greater cruelty to take a man’s life away, or through careful manipulation, drive him to annihilate his own humanity?

It is a film with many secrets – some simple to spot, others so beyond ordinary conceit as to be terrifying. If David Mamet had written the classiest ever episode of
Tales From the Crypt, it might have resembled this, although its fascination is not with gore, but the damage inflicted on the soul by fate and our own drives. It is difficult to engross oneself in a narrative when it is so clear you are being toyed with – that a character you sympathize with now may transform, that a mystery you’d invested in to illuminate the plot for you vaporized like flash paper.

And in the end I’d say the movie fails at a subtle but crucial task – to prepare you for the sense that you are in a world where what happens at the end is actually possible. But it does deliver a hell of a show along the way, one that demonstrates the filmmakers’ dexterity with story and thorough understanding of audience psychology.

I’ll try to provide only the information that is necessary, and overload you with caveats so you can appreciate this piece’s nature. Like Memento, the picture shatters conventional chronology, not to flout convention, but because the forward flow of time is inconvenient to our journey towards the story’s emotional heart.

In turn-of-the-century London, popular magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) vanishes during a flashy illusion, dropping through a trap door in the stage. He lands in a water tank below, which locks him in, and he apparently drowns. The magician performing across the street, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) watches it happen, and he is arrested for Angier’s murder, a crime for which he is apparently doomed for the noose.

This is but the climax in a rivalry that dates back years, to when both were eager apprentices. Borden had innate vision and imagination, Jackman skill and a flair for showmanship – each convinced that their virtues were the key to performing great magic.

And then Borden was seemingly responsible for a devastating accident; and as they went their separate ways each would invade the others’ career with increasingly dangerous sabotage and subterfuge, and building more spectacular illusions along the way. In particular they would compete with variations on a trick called “The Transported Man”, in which the magician walks through a doorway on one end of the stage and seemingly appears instantaneously out of a doorway on the other end.

The mechanism that makes this extraordinary illusion possible may have been built by pioneering physicist Nikolas Tesla, and when Angier seeks him out he’s in a mysterious laboratory high in the Rocky Mountains in a town where lightning is nearly constant, and he may be performing experiments that could be a monstrous affront to nature.

You see how difficult it is to feel on solid ground when your story is being driven by such deceivers. The film has abundantly more “mights” and “maybes” I can’t even cover, and more threads of history and tragedy binding its obsessed characters to one another. An adaptation of Christopher Priest’s novel, it provides a novel’s worth of sustenance in a never-slackening pace.

What you can feel solid about is the strength of its cast and the beauty of its design. Jackman and Bale are gripping in that each can hold the center of the stage while simultaneously hiding volumes – the essence of the magician’s skill. Michael Caine lends authority playing a magician’s engineer, a man who works with his hands and understands the intimate relationship between technique and audience emotion. His attitude about his mystical profession is not cynical, but more like the moderately-tempered appreciation of a long marriage.

Cinematographer Wally Pfister and production designer Nathan Crowley, each long-time Nolan collaborators, work to revive a world where Heaven and Hell could be in the same city, where everything seemed possible but nothing came without price. They turn the ordinary into the provocative, asking us to consider what’s behind a field full of top hats, and the provocative into the supernatural, daring us to believe that the power to shatter our belief in the way of things could be contained in a tall wooden cabinet no one can open without hesitation.

That’s a long way of saying they put the magic into The Prestige, a picture that will linger with you long after it has ended. It is a film whose reach does not so much exceed its grasp as force it to cling to its goal by the fingertips, quivering. I don’t know that there’s an answer to its minor flaws that wouldn’t have damaged the piece in some other way, so I’ll conclude that The Prestige attempts to astonish you, and may do as well can be done with its assets, which is very well indeed. But that’s the trick, isn’t it? Magic excites you about the possible, but you never really know.


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